Red pandas’ adorable fluffy faces and hilarious hijinks make them fodder for all sorts of viral internet cuteness. Now, Disney’s recent release of the movie Turning Red, which tells the story of a Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old girl who transforms into a big red panda when she feels big emotions, is likely to also spark a new wave of interest in the endangered animal. The movie, in truth a metaphor for adolescent pubescence and angst, comes out today on Disney+. On the occasion of the film’s debut, here are eight fascinating details about these elusive animals:
They Are the Only “True” Panda
Like giant pandas, red pandas are a bamboo-munching species native to high forests of Asia. While the two animals share a name and favorite food, they’re not closely related. Western scientists described red pandas 50 years before giant pandas, and named the black-and-white bear after the smaller red panda because of their shared characteristics, like a taste for bamboo and a bonus digit called a pseudothumb. But the latest research has placed red pandas in their own taxonomic family, Ailuridae, while giant pandas belongs to the Ursidae, or bear family.
That makes red pandas the only “true” panda. The term “panda” is believed to be derived from the Nepalese words “nigalya ponya” which translates to “bamboo eater.”
Recent genetic studies suggest two distinct species of red panda: the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Chinese red pandas typically have a redder face and more distinguished tail rings, and Himalayan red pandas tend to be smaller and have lighter-colored fur.
They Mostly Eat Vegetation
Though red pandas are carnivores, they rarely eat meat. The term carnivore refers to their biological order, not their dietary preference. Because red pandas descended from a shared ancestor with other carnivores, they share cat-like facial features and teeth, but they switched to a bamboo-based diet more than two million of years ago.
“Biologically, they’re a carnivore, they have teeth designed for ripping and shredding,” says Sarah Glass, the curator for red pandas at Zoo Knoxville. “But somewhere along the way, they decided bamboo doesn’t run away, it’s always green, it’s a big grass, you can always find it—I’m going to find a way to make this work.”
To manage their new grassy diet, red pandas gained adaptations, including an elongated wrist bone used to grasp bamboo when feeding called a pseudothumb. Because they retained the digestive system of a carnivore, a red panda has to eat 20 to 30 percent of their body weight in bamboo each day. Pandas will occasionally opt for foods like fruits, insects and bird eggs, too.
“They’re using a carnivore digestive system to process bamboo and that is quite difficult,” says red panda biologist Angela Glatston. “They need an awful lot of bamboo get enough energy.” Because they have a short digestive system, red pandas poop mere hours after eating.
They are Arboreal Acrobats
Red pandas are skilled tree-top navigators; they have sharp, semi-retractable claws like a cat, which they use to grip mossy and slippery tree branches. They also use their bushy tails, which are marked with alternating red and buff rings, as ballasts to maintain balance.
Because red pandas have extremely flexible ankles, they are one of the few animals that can climb down trees head-first. “When I go through the jungle, every other animal when they are in the trees, they crawl down with their hindlimbs first,” says Ang Puri Sherpa, country director for the Red Panda Network, a Nepalese organization dedicated to the conservation of wild red pandas. “But when you see the pandas, they always crawl down headfirst.”
Red panda’s fibula and tibia are attached in a way that allows their feet to rotate 180 degrees, giving their curved claws a better angle to grip tree bark.
Their Fur Provides Camouflage
Though a red panda’s rusty coat might seem like a bold choice for a forest-swelling species, their color helps them blend in with their surroundings. In their home in the mountainous forests of China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, trees are draped with reddish-brown moss and lichens. Red pandas also have black fur on their belly and legs, which helps them hide from predators like snow leopards against the dark foliage.
“Sometimes it’s a miracle to spot a red panda because they can camouflage very well in their habitat,” says Sonam Tashi Lama, the project coordinator for the Red Panda Network. “There are mosses similar to the color of red pandas, so sometimes, we think there is a red panda far in the distance,” he says. When he gets closer, he’s often disappointed to find the reddish blob is a just clump of moss.
Their Home Is Fragmented
Fewer than 10,000 red pandas survive in the wild, and hundreds live in zoos across the world. Those that have survived in the wild are often confined to pockets of intact forest. “The animals are isolated in small groups and losing maybe one female, for example, may totally wipe out the reproductive potential of that group,” says Glatston.
While the awareness of the threats to red pandas has increased dramatically over recent decades, humans and red pandas are still competing for space and resources. In addition to habitat loss, poaching is a huge threat to red pandas. Some animals are taken from the wild to be kept as pets (despite making terrible houseguests, according to experts) and others are killed for their fur.
“Support from the local community is very crucial, because they are real stewards of the red panda and their habitat,” says Lama. “Every day the human population is growing, and the demand of firewood and the demand of road networks in the hills where the red panda habitat falls is growing.”
One way that the Red Panda Network supports both locals and red pandas is by hiring community members as environmental stewards, which reduces poaching and provides alternative income sources.
They Are Smelly Socializers
Red pandas usually prefer to live on their own, except for moms and their young cubs. Because males are solitary, they must work to find a female partner and begin searching for a suitable mate in the winter and early spring. To alert other pandas to their presence, males mark territory with scent glands on their feet and at the base of their tail. The glands secrete a colorless liquid that is pungent to pandas, but odorless to humans. They also opt for another charming trick: personal poop piles.
“These poop piles are basically a message post saying, ‘Hey, I’m in the area,’” says Glass. “Once a male finds a female, they’ll follow them around and hang out closely, because you only have that short 24- to 48-hour window where she’s going to turn around and go, “‘Okay, you’re cute.’”
Like giant pandas, red panda females are fertile for only one or two days a year and can delay implantation of a fertilized egg for weeks. Red pandas’ gestation period can be short as 93 days or as long as 156 days to ensure cubs are born when the most tender and digestible bamboo shoots and leaves are available, usually in late spring.
Cubs Are Playful
The first few weeks of a red panda’s life are a challenge. Red panda babies are born in litters of one to four cubs, but a female usually has a pair of offspring. Newborn red pandas “are about the size and shape of a Twinkie,” says Glass, and they nurse and get groomed for weeks before their eyes will start to open. At around a month old, they’ll start to develop their distinct reddish color and darker markings.
“Six weeks is what starts we call the popcorn stage,” says Glass. “They just sort of leap randomly every so often, maybe into a wall, maybe each other.” Glass says they venture outside of the den around three months old, and only start to gain real control of their bodies at four of five months old.
Young pandas pounce and play not just for fun, but to build skills like balance and coordination. “One of the most charming sorts of play behavior I’ve ever seen is red panda young playing with their parents,” says Glatston. “They raise up on their hind legs, and put their front paws up, and then they will pounce on one of their parents. It’s just so cute.”
Red pandas are considered full-grown around two years of age and reach the size of a fluffy house cat.
They Can Endure Cold Weather
When temperatures drop, red pandas conserve energy by slowing their metabolic rate. When in this state, called “torpor,” they drift into deep sleep, dropping their core body temperature and respiration rate. Red pandas’ tails not only help them balance as they navigate the tree canopy—they also act as built-in blankets to protect them from harsh temperatures, which can dip to 19 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
Like the rest of their body, their tail is covered in a dense woolly undercoat with long, coarse guard hairs. Their nose is their only feature exposed to the elements—even the bottoms of their feet have an insulating layer of fur. When temperatures turn warmer in the summer months, red pandas stretch out on branches and pant to stay cool.